This is a guest post by Iain Clements, minister at Latimer Congregational Church in Beverley. Views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of this blog.
Recently, my church has been working towards employing some kind of assistant pastor. This led me to think back on my own experience in an assistant role. Perhaps unusually, I spent 8 years in that role, serving two different churches. This period of reflection led me to jot down some points I had learnt (or, rather, wish I had learnt) from my time in that role. I always intended to write some kind of article, but never got round to it. In the end, I took the lazy way out and posted a Twitter thread. Having done that, I was gently encouraged to do what I had always meant to do!
The one initial point I would stress – and it is not original to me – is this: there is a huge difference between being the senior minister and being the assistant. Regardless of how convinced you are of a plurality of elders and the necessity of team ministry (and you may be right on that), there is a huge psychological difference between being lead/senior/minister and the buck not stopping with you. So, in a sense, it’s important to recognise there is no perfect assistantship. Like learning to drive, the real learning begins when you are behind the wheel without the instructor.
Having said that, here are 10 points to make your time as an assistant as happy and useful one as it might be and one that will bless the church you are serving.
- DEFINE THE ROLE
Expectations affect experience. Before you begin, have a full and frank discussion with the minister and elders about what exactly the role will be.
Some assistantships are training roles, meaning there will be lots of feedback from the senior minister on everything you do. Other assistant roles are given on the assumption that you are called and trained such that you will be given responsibility and expected to get on with it. Equally, church life can be so busy that having an assistant who needs lots of personal input from the minister just isn’t going to work.
There are a host of expectations that are worth making clear, but being clear from the outset protects you and the church from frustration.
2. WORK HARD
I appreciate this may not need to be said to many, but for some it can be easy to coast as an assistant. Work hard! Prepare new sermons every time you preach. Get into good habits of prayer and study. Likewise, get into godly habits of rest. Give your all to everything you do even if you are not the person leading the work. These habits will serve you well in the future.
If you don’t need to prepare many sermons, there are areas you will need to sort when you head into a senior role. Are you clear on divorce and remarriage? What about membership and the sacraments? You simply won’t have the luxury of time to work these things out later on.
3. BE LOYAL TO THE CHURCH YOU ARE SERVING
You may only be in your position for 2-3 years, but it is your church. You will take membership vows like everyone else. Both my assistantships were in London and it felt like everyone was in the same boat – thinking of leaving London! Model commitment to a local church. Pray for the church. Serve the local church. Love the local church.
You may have been wonderfully mentored at a “home” church, but it can be annoying to bring it up! Have the same attitude to this local church that you would expect any member to have.
4. BE LOYAL TO THE MINISTER
The relationship between the senior minister and assistant minister is an important one. I believe it is the role of the assistant to make sure that it doesn’t become a difficult one. I write that because, to put it bluntly, it is easier for you to move on without damaging the church.
Remember you are in a significant position. Being new, it may be that people confide in you about issues or problems they have with the minister. You may well have a “birds eye” view of the church making you able to spot problems and dissension.
But never publicly disagree with your minister. This can open up difficulties that may lead anywhere. Obviously, you won’t agree with him on everything so do talk privately (the minister has a responsibility to allow full and frank private discussion between you). But churches have split because of difficulties between minister and assistant. Love the church more than your ego.
As such, know what you are walking into! Don’t be so desperate for a role the you don’t understand the church or the minister’s philosophy of ministry. Don’t ignore rumours or the experience of previous assistants.
5. GROW AS A PREACHER
The guilty secret the assistant minister needs to remember is that if you can preach half decently people will love your sermons. But the reasons for that may be nothing to do with you! You are the voice that people hear less often, giving them a break from the minister. As well as that, godly people love to encourage younger folk going into the ministry. They will be behind you, praying and willing you on!
Don’t dismiss that encouragement, but don’t let it go to your head. Seek out trustworthy people, hear their critiques. Once you move on it can be almost impossible to get that kind of helpful input.
6. FEED ON THE MINISTRY OF OTHERS
You will likely be frustrated that you are not preaching as much as you would like. This is as it should be. If you don’t feel that, it’s a problem! But don’t let that frustration dominate.
You’ve got a great opportunity to feed on the ministry of others. Take that opportunity. Don’t listen as a professional critic. This is easy to do, especially if you’re straight out of college. Remember you are a Christian first before you are a minister. You need to be fed before you feed others.
7. REMEMBER RELATIONSHIPS TAKE TIME
You may arrive at a church with training and a title, but that’s not what counts in getting alongside folk. Relationships take time. Be humble and human. Meet up for coffee and let spiritual conversations develop naturally. Let people begin to trust you. The Lord may use you greatly during the short time you are there. Or maybe not (that you know of). Sow the word. Love people. Pray.
8. LOVE THE WHOLE CHURCH
You may have particular responsibilities in your role e.g. youth work or evangelism. If you do, don’t become parochial. If you move into a senior minister role, everything will be your responsibility. Make the effort to work with all sorts of people. Set up the toddler group. Go to the senior’s lunch. Stand on a book table chatting to Muslims. As well as experience, you will also receive love and respect from those involved as it shows you value their work.
9. LEARN FROM MEETINGS
One of the most challenging aspects of moving from assistant to minister is being responsible for chairing meetings and feeling responsible for how they go. But as an assistant, you have a great opportunity to observe these meetings without chairing them.
Approach such meetings with two heads. Obviously, you need to be focused on the details of the meeting, ready to take part and contribute. But at the same time, observe. How well is the meeting going? More importantly, why? Is it being chaired well? Do people feel listened to? If it’s not going well, what’s going wrong? Is the chair driving things through without listening? Are they projecting a nervousness that put everyone on edge from the start? How was the financial report given? Did people understand or did it make people confused and raise tension in the room? How are difficult people dealt handled? Store those reflections for the future.
10. TRUST THE LORD FOR THE FUTURE
The big personal challenge of the assistant role is that it only lasts a short period. Even if the contract says 3-5 years, time goes quickly! It’s easy to spend a lot of mental energy thinking about your next step.
Clearly, it would be unwise not to plan for the future. But do all you can not to let it dominate your thinking. It’s hard to love the people in front of you with one foot out of the door. There are no shortages of opportunities to serve the Lord. As Jesus said, “the harvest is plentiful and the workers are few”. So love, work, pray, and push at opening doors.